Sunday, October 30, 2011

Rush hour in the garden

October is a busy month in my garden. No, not for me. I just flop around on my verandah or under the cashew trees, moaning about the killing heat in Mumbai. But the little creatures that also call my garden "home" are busier than ever. They are everywhere that I look, doing their own thing and generally making my garden look like it is abuzz with activity. Sooner them than me!

For starters, the dragonflies are all over the place. Zipping and swirling around, sometimes solo but usually in a cloud. I love dragonflies! Seeing them in action makes me an ultra-happy person because they hunt mosquitoes.
Did I mention that all the foliage in my garden seems to attract every single mosquito for miles around?The garden of Eden had a snake to harass the residents, mine has mosquitoes. Which also means that it has some very happy dragonflies.

I love this extremely vibrant Dawn Dropwing dragonfly who put an old orchid bloom spike to good use. He kept perching on it, sticking his bright tail up in the air and fanning his wings open in a display that kept veiling and unveiling his fuchsia-purple body. The poor guy was obelisking to beat the heat!
To read more about this gorgeous dragonfly, check this out.

The damselflies are out too, even in my apartment garden. They're such delicate little wisps that one usually doesn't notice them until they rise up out of some plant that they were perched on. But don't let their size (or lack of it) fool you. They are just as efficient at hunting out mosquitoes, flies and insect pests. I've seen one gobbling up a beetle which looked much too large to fit into the damselfly's tummy!

Then there are the butterflies .... Oh my God! the butterflies! They're everywhere. Flitting, floating, frolicking ... I love this season for the butterflies . My Vinca rosea patch is seeing rush hour throughout the day.
By the way, did you notice the little damselfly watching the Common Wanderer butterfly? That's the same little guy in the second photo. He was almost glued to the spot for hours.

You would think that with a name like Grass Demon this butterfly would be huge and scary. But no, he's really quite small. What really is larger than life is that proboscis of his!

'Huge and scary' should probably go to describe the Giant Redeye butterfly! This butterfly feeding on the Spiderlilies isn't very big, but take a look at its big ruby-red eyes! How beautifully weird is that?

If you're looking for unconventional beauties, here's one for your list. The Buff Striped Keelback is quite a small, thin snake and is absolutely harmless. Every so often I find one zipping across my yard, hoping that no one will notice him. This one was racing across the roasting sunny areas and heading for the cool shade of the heliconias. Hopefully, he was after some garden pests but more probably, he had his eye on the little frogs which like to hang out there too.

He has no idea just how lucky he is to miss being spotted by our resident Pariah Kite!
The Pariah Kites are nesting again on the coconut tree and keep a strict watch on everything that is going on. This one swooped down for a quick sip and dip in the bird-bath. And of course, some crows landed up immediately too. Just to keep an eye on him, you know.

October is also the month when the migratory birds start trooping in. I found this Hoopoe scanning some of the overgrown grass ( a last remnant of the monsoon super-growth). A crow swooped by near him and up went his startled crest. Such fun!
By the way, doesn't he look like the Creator drew some sample scribbles on his back while trying to design the Zebra?

The season is changing. It is still as hot as ever during the day but now there is a cool nip in the air at night and I love the transitions it brings. I love this season for the unusual birds that show up and also for some of the more unusual blooms. Even on the foliage plants, like this Phyllanthus myrtifolius which is widely grown as a hedge or for topiaries. It is not one of my most favourite plants but in October I seriously re-think that opinion. Because that's when it transforms into a blooming beauty!

Monday, October 17, 2011

'How not to make millions' ... and still enjoy a good book!

Every once in a while I feel the internet is one of the best things that happened to me. From being a raw newbie who had a PC forced on me some years ago by my brother (he felt I was sinking into the world of plants and birds and butterflies too much and forgetting all about the modern one) to discovering a whole new world filled with like-minded people with similar interests, has been one of the most amazing journeys of my life.
Best of all, I also discovered that I was not the only one who enjoyed that world of plants and birds and butterflies!

Which is why I'm really excited about this new e-book I'm getting,
'HOW NOT TO MAKE MILLIONS - but still enjoy a rich rural life' .
Is that a great title, or what? It made me go "huh? what was that again?" the first time I read it. I wish I had thought of it first!
With a zinger of a title like that can't you just taste what's in store? I 'met' the author, Alan McDonald, on an online forum a couple of years ago and I don't know if I love his tongue-in-cheek sense of humour more or the very practical solutions he always has to offer. When one has been farming and gardening for around 60 years in places as diverse as Scotland, Portugal and Australia, one does pack a great store of garden wisdom !

'How not to make millions ... ' began as a series of notes when Alan started jotting down his experiences as a gardener and farmer, recording what and what not to do in the future. His intention, partly, was to create a record which his son could access anytime he wanted to, adding some notes too about their personal history which he thought future generations might find interesting.

Started in 1951, the notes took on a new life when Alan decided to transfer them to a computer. Very soon, he was persuaded on popular request, to convert them to e-book form (a big "thank you" to whoever was responsible for this feat!).

"My original aim had been to show my son that through his own efforts and on minimal income, he could make a farm out of any land irrespective of where it might be or its condition when purchased, and then enjoy a lifestyle that many people think would require a considerable income to support."

I love that, especially the last bit.
But, it didn't end there. Alan realised that what was good advice for his son was just as good for a wider reading public.

"As I moved around the world the book came to have a second aim, and that is to have all landholders think long and hard about how successive generations of future farmers can do the same thing by leaving their land in a more fertile state than when it was acquired."

Which makes the book such a perfect read. I love the whole "leave the earth a better place" angle.

"Even if your dream is to undertake some other pursuit rather than things agricultural, it is still necessary to produce as much of your own food as possible if you want to eat really well at minimum cost, so you must have a vegetable garden, preferably some fruit and nuts too, and space for some meat production if you eat meat."

You see what I mean? No-nonsense, practical to the core.
I'm not looking for new-fangled notions and concepts in this book. I'm going to devour it instead for the author's wholesome attitude to farming and gardening, practical advice on growing food and what a new landowner (or even a seasoned one) should look out for, especially, which pitfalls to avoid. And, 6 decades of hands-on experience and knowledge. I'm looking forward, especially, to re-discovering gardening and farming practices which may have become forgotten today but which deserve a second look. I'm looking forward, most of all, to a good read.

I for one, thoroughly treasure Alan's advice and recommendations. Even if he claims that a city-dweller may not possibly appreciate his book.
Well, you're so mistaken, Alan McDonald! I can think of a million reasons why I'm just itching to read it, and guess what ? I feel millions richer already!

Post-script : Take a look at Alan's blog here
(excerpts are quoted from the Preface, accessed from Smashwords )

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Transitions and deja-vu

October heralds a second summer in Mumbai . Shorter, but maybe hotter (or at least, it feels so). Already the deliciously cool, wet days of the monsoon season are a mere memory. And, as the days start trudging from unbearably humid and hot to skin-cracklingly sizzling, I wish that if we had to be gifted a repetition of a season the same year, it would be the monsoon which re-visits us. Definitely NOT Summer!
Every so often my non-tropical garden friends ask me why I get so deliriously ecstatic over the monsoons. I'm at a loss to pick just one reason .

I love it for the heavenly scent of Michaellia champaca that lures and trails me as I walk in my garden in the evening. It even wafts indoors and crooks a perfumed finger at me. And I put everything else aside and follow, losing myself in its heady scent.

... For the unexpected beauty that nudges me out of everyday chores, waiting to surprise me at every turn.
What used to be a very pedestrian driveway gets transformed into a beautiful swift-flowing, cool stream, complete with an offering to the river goddess...

... and dozens of little 'waterfalls' and 'rapids' that fire the imagination and create little adventurers of those brave enough to risk a slip and slide.
There goes all my beautiful garden soil rushing along downstream ... sigh! ... but the sheer fun of seeing a stream come alive in my garden is worth every grain of it. I love the character it adds to my garden space!

... For the hundreds of wild curcumas and gazillions of maidenhair fern that sprout on cue all over the place.
I love these plants! Curcumas in every shade of lilac and mauve and rich, deep dark purple and feathery Maidenhair ferns so delicately, exquisitely beautiful. I really miss them when they disappear soon after the monsoons. For me, they are the link my garden shares with the great mountain chain of the Western Ghats and its rich biodiversity. One tiny little outpost on the furthest tip. I can live with that!

... For all those lovely fruits that decide to start yielding now, including the passionfruits blushing among the curry leaves. (I've heard of "currying favour" but "currying passion"? ... that's a new one!).

... For the cool, misty and windy days that morph simple photographs into a blur of poetic colour. I love the fresh-washed green that is a regular backdrop for all the photos taken in this season. And I love how the monsoon light makes the reds sizzle in my garden photos (now you know why I surround myself with so many red anthuriums).

... For the myriad vibrantly colourful, totally unusual creatures that show up now.
Even before I finish marvelling at one, I spot another not too far away.

And another ...
Isn't this tiny Tortoise Beetle the cutest thing you've ever seen? All gleaming gold and tiny pattering feet with its own clear space bubble. Cute!

... For the mossy look that cloaks everything.
Soft, cushiony moss, lending an air of woodland groves, envelops every surface. From bricks on the pathways to the bark on the trees . Cushiony, that's the word, not slippery.
I wonder if there's any way I could get a soft moss bed to sleep on? Just looking at it makes me feel like lying down on it.

.... For the air of supreme fertility everywhere. This anthurium on the right is so ready to pop !

... For the air of supreme fertility.
Oh, did I say that already? What else would one think on spotting the red ginger (Alpinia purpurata) sprouting even as it blooms?

... For all the little babies that show up now.
Monsoon is when my orchids go into baby over-drive. There are little keikis forming on almost every cane of the mature dendrobiums.
It is also the season when my outdoor-grown orchids start fleshing out again after being cooked and dehydrated in our roasting Mumbai summer. Did I tell you that I never pamper my orchids? They actually seem to prefer it that way!

... For the days when it rains and rains and rains. Until it seems as if my world has shrunk into a little cocoon and I'm dreamily snug in my little verandah, blissfully gazing out at my thoughts ... a little world within my world.

Just a few reasons. Not all, but just enough to detail my karmic connection with the monsoon. And now it looks like we're done for this year, so it's time to tuck these memories away. To be dipped into every time I need a serenity fix or a taste of what the next monsoon will do.

Because now it's time for Butterflies

... and Dragonflies

... and Orchids!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Plant ID

Just for fun ... can you identify this flower / plant? I'm sure most of you love it. I know that I do. I saw it on one of my trips and got all excited because I had never seen it in bloom before. I just had to click a photo to show you.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Monsoons ... the agony and the ecstasy

Mystical, magical monsoon in Mumbai makes me go "mmmmmm.....!"

Okay, I was just dying to say that. If it's one mmm too many, blame it on the season. The rain does that to me. Beautiful cooling rain after months of broiling in the heat and dust of summer. So very deliciously divine!

And, I love the plants and blooms it heralds. Wildly beautiful Curcumas popping up all over my garden, driving the bees mad with golden pathways to paradise. Safed musli with its spikes of white blooms. And the luxuriant green curtains of maidenhair fern waving from every wall and stone. All growing wild, but as welcome as any expensive plant swooped on from a nursery.

And I love the way the monsoon washes the city roads, transforming the lucky ones into tree-enclosed, vine-smothered jungle trails. (The others, horrifyingly, become mini-lakes but let's not go there now, okay? I'm still in ecstasy mode. )
The dust is gone, leaves washed clean and the dirt is entombed in a soft green sheath.
Green. Every shade and hue imaginable. So very energising.... and so very soothing.

The passionfruit vines are smothered in blooms, filling the evening air with its heady fragrance and dreams of delicious flavours to come. Anticipation is such a bittersweet thing!

My dendrobium orchids are in ecstasy mode too now. The monsoons trigger a heady season of riotous blooming unlike anything else I've seen.

And with every blooming season a mascot (or mascots) makes its presence felt. The vincas are awash with butterflies. This Skipper (Tricoloured Flat, if I'm not mistaken?) was the only one that would sit still for me. The others insisted on eating on the run.
A Common Mormon was visiting the Vinca rosea too, flapping its red-and-black dramatic wings.
Those regular, common-place Vincas seen in every abandoned plot of land all over the place are real butterfly magnets. But guess what ... none of those butterflies would even land on the hybrid vincas which I had planted in the same bed for a splash of colour.
Hmmm .... so much for glamour!

The passionflower has its share of hungry visitors too. I was really amused to see these bees picnicking. This once they didn't have to delve deep into a flower to get at the goodies. How very accomodating of the passionflower.
I just wish it would choose to bloom during the day so I could get a better shot, though.

Clicking photos on overcast days comes with its own set of agonies. I wish I could capture the mood and ambience of that beautiful time when we're envelopped in dark rain clouds promising to spill over any minute ( no! we tropical folk are not so enamoured of the sun ). My whole garden takes on a slightly magical look in this light but my Old Faithful, a Canon Ixus which has been with me throughout my blogging journey, has turned temperamental and is on its last legs. I suspect a lens problem and have been advised to get myself a new camera. I know I should but I'll miss this one so much.

Just as I'll miss all those unfortunate plants that have decided to join that great big garden in the sky. The monsoon season can be hell on plants too. Especially when it rains non-stop for days on end.
Which is worse, losing them to death by drowning in the torrential rain or by slow rot or by being blown away by the squalling winds? Or by having a big, strong tree topple over , carrying with it all the little plants that grew in its shelter? Or by being chewed alive by creatures that can't even walk? And those that can?
My orchids, especially, are susceptible to these silent killers which makes them so very squish-worthy.. I may (sometimes, if I'm feeling lazy) turn a blind eye to snails in summer but never ever in the monsoon season! They're Enemy No.1 then.

No, I take that back. They share that spot with another dreaded enemy ... the mosquito. You can't avoid them completely in the tropics but in the monsoon season, they become a ravenous, blanketing force driving me indoors as nothing else can. Which makes me so very grateful for two little garden creatures who are Mosquito Hunters Extraordinare :


Always welcome in my garden. And always a pleasure to watch.
Sometimes agony does give way to ecstasy too, right?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Summer-ful of fun ... and a great offer

If you wondered whether I had melted away in the summer heat, you wouldn't be that far off the mark. 1 month is way too long to miss updating, I know.
First I was travelling all over the place (more about that later), then when I got back my internet connection started acting up, disconnecting every few seconds until I gave up in frustration.
Then, the usual summer work in my garden caught up and I was busy, busy, busy. Not the perfect word to associate with our scorching summers here in Mumbai, I know, but I wonder whether anyone bothered to tell that to this Blue Banded Bee deliriously hopscotching among the Pentas?
(Don't you just love those colours, by the way? )

I'm quite partial to Pentas too. Partly because they're such cheerful bloomers, partly because they come in such vivid colours and mostly because the honeybees love them. Yeah, mostly because of the honeybees ... I love what they do for my plants. This particular plant had about 20 bees (at least) visiting for a leisurely sip. This one looks really deep in the cups, doesn't he? And so early in the morning too!

The crows are nesting. And guess who's got a nursery make-over? Sports-themed too! Can't figure out how she got it so perfectly colour co-ordinated, though.
Can you believe there's a crow in my garden with a flair for home decor?

You want to talk colour? I love this new entrant to my garden. I think these Red Pierrot butterflies stowed away on a couple of blooming Kalanchoes that I bought recently. Don't you just love them ... so dramatic!
Remind me to buy more plants, okay? Who knows which butterfly will follow us home next time?

If there's one bug which is always welcome in my garden it has to be the ladybug beetle (or lady-bird, as we're so used to calling them in India). I think the black-spotted red ones are really cute but I haven't seen even one in my garden (nor anywhere in Mumbai, come to think of it) so I'm more than happy with these Six-Spotted Zigzag ladybugs. Not so flamboyant but they do have a zany sense of style. And I do like their dietary habits! Any bug with a taste for aphids and scales and thrips and other nasties gets a warm welcome in my garden.

Oh! And guess what I found?
A whole slew of 1-day programmes organised by BNHS . I missed the Flamingo Watch at Sewri but I'm trying like crazy to see if I can make it for the trip to Yeoor Hills or even the Nature Trail at Elephanta Island. (okay, I missed those too ... this post has been sitting in my computer for too long! I hate it when my internet goes on the blink ) The mention of all those birds and butterflies have really sparked my curiosity.

So why am I on this hunt for trails when the summer heat normally has me yearning for a cool spot away from any physical exertion? One, because I really enjoy seeing the local flora and fauna in their natural surroundings.
Two, it's the perfect opportunity to introduce my kids to them. Normally school timings and activities get in the way but hey, the vacations are on now.
Three... and most important ... the vacations are on! and if I hear "Mama, I'm bored" or "What do I do now?" just once more, I think I'll scream.

So, I'm hunting up things for us to do together. And the more Nature-oriented, the better. Which is why the BNHS programmes are perfect.
The Trails organised by the Conservation Education Centre sound really interesting too, especially the Leopard Trail. I bet it's a hit with the teens! Me Tarazan, you ... er, Leopard?

And for all you moms (and dads) out there who are figuring out how to get junior interested in gardens and garden creatures and the Great Outdoors, here's this fabulous offer from Black Dog Publishing. They are offering all readers of The Urban Gardener a huge walloping discount of 40% off when you buy their latest book 'Kids in the Wild Garden: Fun Activities for the Great Outdoors'!
That's a sample page from the book in the picture above, by the way.And it's packed with fun projects (well-illustrated and with easy to follow step-by-step instructions) and ideas that kids of any age, from 5 years and up, will enjoy. I think I would love to make one of those butterfly houses with my daughter.
Actually, you know what? I think this is a great book for grown-ups too. I've only read snippets from the book and I'm itching to lay my hands on it.

Okay, all you have to do is to e-mail Jess Atkins ( ) with your address and quote 'The Urban Gardener book offer' in the subject line when you place your order. For UK readers, the price after discount is £ 5.97 and for our US readers it is $9.57 after discount (shipping not included).

And, oh yes, there's one more thing you've got to do .... ENJOY! And do let me know how you liked the book, okay?

(pic. of page spread from 'Kids in the Wild Garden' courtesy Black Dog Publishing )

POST SCRIPT : IT"S RAINING!!! Love, Love, LOVE the rains !

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

An Indian Summer

"SUMMER!" trumpets a hot-pink zinnia, zinging up the garden.
Goodbye cool nights and misty mornings veiled in dew.
Goodbye visiting birds from faraway lands.
Goodbye dreamy, mellow sunlit days, spinning magic in Mumbai.

"SUMMER!" exclaims the sultry Tithonia, flaming orange burning up the flower-beds.
Breathe in the fragrance of jasmines richly lacing the air.
Sneak a peek at the koel hiding in the dense canopy, ruby eyes glinting in the shadows.
Hail the nesting birds on every branch and nook and cranny.
Usher in the season of summer-welcoming, sun-toned fruits; tempting, teasing, inviting...

"Summer! " sighs the languid butterfly as she weaves her way from one colour-burst to the other, smothering them with kisses.
Binge on clouds of blooming trees painting the landscape in swathes of colour.
Immerse the senses in an overdose of summer-time triggers; of colours and fragrances and flavours and birdsongs and sensations.

"Summer!" giggles a bevy of orchids in bloom, flaunting their jewel colours from the precious shade.
Glory in the slightest breeze wafting over the steaming land.
Treasure the patches of deepest shade, the terrain of ancient, towering trees.
A hammock to swing on, a book to dream by, a swig of icy cool tender-coconut juice to sweeten the mood ...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fruits of labour

Spring is here in Mumbai (feels like Summer, though!) and I'm busy harvesting vegetables from my winter crop. So satisfying to see the fruits of one's labour!

In Mumbai, one of the easiest winter veggies that grow to harvest within a month of sowing are these red radishes. I much prefer these quick-to-harvest veggies... mainly because I'm too impatient for my own good.
Gardening is supposed to teach one patience, right? Well, it hasn't happened to me yet!

These have to be some of the most flavourful radishes I've ever tasted. Just bursting with goodness, like the ad-guys say. And they look so pretty too(er... I meant the radishes, of course)!

I was never too fond of radishes and their slightly pungent flavour. Till I tasted the home-grown, just-out-of-the-garden variety. You have no idea what a difference that makes. Especially since I didn't wait for it to get too big and woody but harvested it early.
But what made it extra-special was that this was planted by my daughter. Aaah! I knew you'd understand.

She had accompanied me to the vegetable patch and was fascinated to see the tomatoes grow.

The flowers of the bok choy are so pretty aren't they? My daughter was a bit annoyed that I had to remove them and other emerging buds. But she's right, they're good enough to go into my flower vases!

They're much tastier when the leaves are tender but if you can keep the flowers away (don't tell her!), you can harvest the leaves a bit longer.
Okay, maybe a couple of flowers among all that green is great soul-food too. Especially when they're such pretty flowers!

And then there was the broccoli (Yes! We do grow broccoli in Mumbai during our so-short winter season) ... a favourite with my kids. They could never understand why broccoli has such a bad reputation among kids in story-books and cartoons.
Anyway, the broccoli was the decider. She decided she wanted her own vegetable patch too.
Broccoli would take too long to grow. By the time it is ready we would be in the middle of summer, broiling in temperatures closer to38*C. But radish? The perfect sneak-in-a quick-crop vegetable!
Love's labour ...

... WON!!!